In the Oscar-nominated Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges plays a country music vet with a noticeable gut and a misanthropic bent, who claws his way out of playing bowling alleys to find a new generation of savvy young listeners. It's a character that bears more than a few similarities to 47-year-old James McMurtry.
McMurtry, a good friend of the late Stephen Bruton (who co-produced and wrote much of Crazy Heart's soundtrack), spent a career's-worth of time toiling in the Texas music scene before he was even really discovered, let alone rediscovered. His big break ended up coming from an anti-George W. Bush protest song that hit the alt-country scene at exactly the time when people started asking, "Where are all the protest songs, already?"
McMurtry, the son of Pulitzer and Oscar-winning novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Brokeback Mountain), penned the 7-minute opus "We Can't Make It Here," a mournful Guthrie-esque ode to America's neglected working class that railed against "stretched V.A. budgets" two years before the Walter Reed scandal. It's a piece of poetry that earned the notice of indie cognoscenti as well as Bush himself, who reportedly screened some Texan musicians for his farewell-to-office bash by checking their affiliations with McMurtry.
"I had hostile e-mails on my Web site just from spinning it one time on the morning drive time," says McMurtry. "You know, Bush's numbers were soaring at that time. This was before the wheels started to come off. It didn't take long before suddenly I had more people on my side than against. I guess a week later, we cut the band version and put it out there for free, and it instantly got more attention than anything I'd put on a CD up to that point."
Outrage still intact, McMurtry followed up with 2008's stellar Just Us Kids. Accompanied by Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, Pat MacDonald on harmonica and even a cello and backup singers, the album featured more anti-Bush polemics, ("You're no longer Daddy's boy / You're the man they're all afraid of," he sang on "Cheney's Toy.")
Yet even now, in the wake of Bush, there's no shortage of material to write about.
"I can't get my head around it," says McMurtry of the current political climate. McMurtry says his own high blood pressure is considered a pre-existing condition that prevents him from obtaining health insurance. "I don't understand everybody's resistance to a health care overhaul. It's so twisted. As soon as [the Democrats] lost their filibuster-proof majority, and it looked like those 30 million people aren't gonna be insured, the Dow Jones went up. The fact that the stock market would go up because people are gonna continue to suffer ... it's ridiculous."
Ever the stoic, McMurtry — who's touring in support of Live in Europe, a rollicking CD/DVD set showcasing McMurtry's unique crowd interaction and swashbuckling chemistry with McLagan — downplays even his influence on his own son, Curtis, who played sax on his last studio album.
"I just kind of stay out of his way," says McMurtry, who knows a thing or two about patriarchal shadows. "I hope he has sense enough not to be in a band. Touring is not a healthy way of life. He can write music and score and everything, so I hope he goes into the scoring movies and video games angle, where you can actually make some money and don't have to ride around eating Dad's food."